By Peter Ellwood
In my home, the default TV channel is the MLB Network. We have the cable box set to it whenever we turn off the TV, so it is the first thing we see when we turn the TV back on. My wife is incredibly accommodating in this, and at times she’ll wind up watching multiple hours of the MLB Network in a day. It may be the only channel number she has memorized.
The MLB Network doesn’t have a whole lot of original content to air during the offseason. It’s nearly impossible to fill a 24/7 channel with all new stuff, all the time, especially when there aren’t any games being played (this of course, does not stop me from watching the MLB Network). Because of that, they show historical or memorable games or events. Some of the replays that I have seen recently have been home run derby events from prior years. I don’t greatly enjoy the home run derby, it usually feels too long or drawn out to me, and is such a watered-down event compared to the great game of baseball in its full form.
However, as I was watching some of these home run derbies that have happened in the last 10 years, I started to notice that I couldn’t remember the contestants who advanced deep in the competition having sustained career success after the year of the derby in which they competed. This brought to mind a common idea that is often regurgitated when the time for the home run derby rolls around each year – players shouldn’t, or don’t like to compete in the competition because it messes with a player’s swing or plate mentality, and they perform worse for their team after participating in the derby.
So obviously, I wanted to know if that is in fact true. The home run derby has been around since 1985. For my purposes, I examined the performance before and after the home run derby for every derby winner from 2000 – 2008 (I believe the winners from 2009 – 2011 have had too small a sample size to judge their post-HR derby performance and therefore were excluded from this analysis). Here are the results (the average WAR listed here is from baseball-reference):
Secondly, we can see that three players had similar pre-HR derby and post-HR derby numbers (by average WAR, at least): Morneau, Howard, and Sosa. The remaining six players – Guerrero, Abreu, Tejada, Anderson, Giambi, and Gonzalez – all saw their regular season performance plummet in the seasons following their claim to title as “home run king”.
Now, we could put a nice bow on this right now and say that yes, participating in the home run derby does seem to affect two-thirds of its participants in their performance during the games that count. Therefore, it would be wise of players to stay away from ever taking part in the exhibition.
However, as is the case in economics, statistics, and medicine, just because event A happened at the same time as event B does not mean that event A caused event B, or event B caused event A. It could be that event C is causing event A and/or event B. More simply stated, correlation does not equal causation. Digging a little deeper into the results of these nine home run derby winners, what else could be causing the drop-off in production for the six that did worse, and how do they differ from the three who sustained their performance?
Allow me to present you with what I believe is the true deciding factor in how well a player performs after participating in the home run derby – age. Look at the ages of the six winners whose performance appeared to be negatively impacted by the home run derby:
So should the Detroit Tigers have thought a little longer about giving Prince Fielder a 9-year, $214 million contract because he won the 2011 Home Run Derby? I don’t think that should have been, or was, a factor in their decision making process. The 27-year old Fielder fits in line with Howard and Morneau in terms of age at the time of winning the derby, and his second half performance of 2011 was little to no different from his first half performance. There shouldn’t be any long-term consequences to his performance just because he won the home run derby.
[Editor's note: Robinson Cano won the 2011 Home Run Derby. Prince Fielder won the 2011 All-Star Game MVP award, and the 2009 Home Run Derby.]
Beyond age, there are many other possible causes of the decline of a player’s production, apart from their participation in the home run derby. Health factors, pitchers discovering weaknesses, and team issues could all play into it as well. All of these are more difficult to pinpoint than the singular event of the home run derby, and therefore that is why the easy assumption is that the home run derby is the problem.
My conclusion is that home run derby participation does not derail professional baseball hitters as many ascertain that it does. Despite the existing track record of individuals who saw their production significantly decline after their participation in the derby, the true cause of this decline is not isolated to the home run derby. In fact, what is more likely taking place is the natural regression that occurs during a player’s career. Typically, a hitter’s prime will take place during the ages of 24 to 29 (give or take based on the individual and their playing experience). Because seven of the nine home run derby winners that were reviewed for this study were already past this phase of performing at their peak physical abilities, it is only logical that six of the nine players studied suffered from diminished on-field abilities.
Reviewing only 9 of the total 26 players to ever win the home run derby may be a small sample size in and of itself, and so future results may deviate from this conclusion. However, I do believe it is safe to say that taking 100-200 swings on one night in the middle of July will not derail a professional ballplayer’s career. These individuals will take over 300,000 swings in their professional career, and likely closer to a million over their life. For less than 0.07% of those swings to be taken with the sole purpose of trying to hit a home run will not change a player’s swing, or his mental approach at the plate.
While I do not greatly enjoy the home run derby, it is a popular event for many of baseball’s fans. It’s an opportunity to see some of its biggest stars having a great time on a night of camaraderie, while having a competition that is friendly in nature. My hope is that unlike the NBA slam dunk competition, the big stars of the game will not be scared to compete in the home run derby for fear of it impacting their career. The greatest part of this event is that the fans get to see the players in more friendly, less competitive environment than normal. In a way the whole night can take us back to a time when the game was simpler and more wholesome, and was played not for 50,000 fans or for millions of dollars, but was a game on a sandlot that was played purely for the joy of the game.